Five commandments for consulting success

Learn the five rules that you must follow for success, and some real-life horror stories of what happens when you break a commandment.

Some rules can be bent but most are sacred for a reason: If you break them, you stand to lose a lot. To succeed, and excel, consultants need to create and enforce strict work policies.

To determine the top five consulting rules (a.k.a. commandments), we reached out to consultants for insight and stories about when they broke their own rules. All requested anonymity—some were embarrassed to relate what they view as their amateur mistakes; others were fearful the publicity would hurt their career. Their real-life experiences will help you learn why some rules should never be broken.

Commandment 1: Always collect an up-front deposit
You can be sure that the one time you make an exception to collecting a deposit, you'll suffer the consequences. Be especially wary of clients who say, "I know this is a small project, but I'm going to have lots more work for you really soon." That's code for, "I don't want to pay you a lot," or "I don't want to pay you up front," or "I don't really value your work," or "I won't be in business long enough to actually pay you when it's over."

Commandment 2: Get a detailed written contract
E-mail makes it easy to assume a fairly informal relationship with everyone. But some interactions—like business agreements—still call for a degree of formality. Without a written contract, you're completely without recourse no matter what the event—if the client refuses to pay, the project is changed or killed midway through, or the client tries to lower the price after you've done the work.

A contract specifies exactly what you'll do as the consultant, precisely what the client must give you, and provisions for getting your money if the project is stalled solely because the client isn't giving you the proper resources to complete it.

True confession: A young developer, eager to land his first few freelance jobs, took on a fairly straightforward Web development project without anything in writing. He collected his advance payment, but when the site was 90 percent complete, the client said he'd have to wait until they decided which shopping cart solution to use before he could finish. That was over three months ago. The project hasn't moved forward, and the developer's bank account is dwindling.

Lesson learned: Avoid this scenario by using this contract clause (or something similar) in a contract to protect yourself:

If the Contractor is unable to complete the project within 30 days of the estimated project completion date because the Client has not provided the Contractor with the necessary information, resources, and tools as specifically described in this agreement, the Contractor shall be held blameless, and the project fees will be due in full.

You can find great sample contracts all over the Web and craft a clause from those examples. It's worthwhile to download a few and even barter with a lawyer friend to help you perfect your own standard contract.

Commandment 3: Don't make unlimited revisions for free
You finish a project, you give it to the client, and everybody's happy. Then, a week or a month later, the client calls and says something like: "We want you to add this feature'" "We'd like to tweak it a little'" "This should only take a few minutes of your time."

These words should make your blood run cold. The contract clients sign will always specify that you'll correct any errors (bug fixes should be included) and mistakes you made because you misunderstood the client's intentions, but that's it. Any revisions beyond the scope of the original project should be considered a new project and billed accordingly. Also specify that any requests for minor fixes, revisions, etc. within the scope of the original project be presented within 30 days.

True confession: A seasoned developer, who admits he should have known better, got stuck in this situation. He made the mistake of doing contract work for a friend without a contract. Not a week goes by that the friend doesn't call with requests for new features or great ideas for expanding the program. Given all the extra work, beyond the set project and price, the developer figured out that he's made about a $1 per hour with this project.

Lesson learned: Stick to the first three commandments and this won't happen.

Commandment 4: Don't turn in work late
If you're looking to alienate clients and trash your professional reputation, go ahead and be late on projects and deadlines. If you want happy clients, repeat business, and lots of referrals, you need to get everything in on time or even early. You may not think it's a big deal to get something in a day or so late, but for your client, it can be the difference between securing funding or not. If you make your client look bad, he will hold it against you forever.

True confession: A Web developer guaranteed delivery of a functional site on a specific date. Two days before that date, he eloped with his fianc�e and spent the weekend in Vegas (with his cell phone turned off the whole time). The client, in the meantime, had planned a huge launch and spent nearly $40,000 on ads promoting the site. Now, he's suing the developer, and, while it will probably be settled out of court, the developer's reputation will take a big hit because the client will likely tell everyone who will listen about the situation. It can be a very small world in consulting, remember.

Lesson learned: Put professional responsibilities first when it comes to work deadlines. If, for whatever reason, you realize you won't hit a deadline, you must tell the client as soon as possible and try to solve the issue. Remember, a happy client is also a valuable networking source and, more than likely, will help you get your next job.

Commandment 5: Send out invoices in a timely manner
You'd think this would be more common sense than a rule, but, many times, consultants disregard the importance of billing because they don't like that aspect of the job.

Very rarely will clients take it on themselves to write checks and mail them without any prompting. Stay on top of your bookkeeping to ensure payment. Remember, the sooner you get your invoice in, the sooner you get your money.

As your business grows, you'll probably need to hire an accountant, but, at the beginning, it all typically falls on you. You can create a Word template for your invoices and get into the habit of sending them the day you turn over a project. Even if you have to make some revisions, the client has at least received one copy of the invoice. For added insurance, e-mail and snail mail a copy.

Have a commandment to add to the list?
These were the top five rules we heard from consultants, but we're interested in hearing more. Send in your top commandments. If we use them in an upcoming article, we'll send you a TechRepublic coffee mug.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox